Jul 042009

“You can lead an organization through persuasion or formal edict. I have never found the arbitrary use of authority to control an organization either effective or, for that matter, personally interesting. If you cannot persuade your colleagues of the correctness of your decision, it is probably worthwhile to rethink your own.”

— Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board

In order to build knowledge organizations that are both enduring and of the highest performance each employee has to be maximally connected to their passion and placed in the right role. Doing this requires expertise in eliciting and assessing employees’ passion for their work as well as being able to fully understand the complexities and challenges of the work at hand. Rather than leading through edict and the seduction of traditional power, RightPlacing and transformational leadership (both of which I have discussed before here at Cutter Consortium) says we should lead through empathy, inquiry, inspiration and motivation.

While this sounds simple enough, there are many difficulties.

In most organizations, over time a critical mass of followers begin to develop an awareness of the gap between what values leaders profess and what values followers see or would like to see in use. I’ll call this the leadership gap. Problems ensue when leaders do not see, choose to ignore or actively try to prevent closing this leadership gap.

When leaders do not see or ignore the gap, leaders lose credibility and the most capable and passionate knowledge workers lose their energy and begin planning their departure. Worse yet, they may retire in place, waiting. When leaders actively suppress this gap, ideological cleansing occurs. Followers or leaders who don’t share the same set of ideas are purged representing a loss of critical expertise. These kinds of ontological wars, wars over how to describe corporate reality, are common, and I contend, a part of organizational life. After all, an organization is a group of people committed to probably not much more than a collection of ideas. And it is the difference in ideas that makes organizations different. But organizations need to adapt and still survive and that means taking on new ideas without loss of knowledge and people.

Small gaps between what leaders profess and what followers desire are inevitable and endemic to human nature. Large gaps are avoidable and become the breeding ground for constructive transformation, provided there are leaders who can marshal the energy within this gap. That energy can be powerful. Ignoring the gap or closing it with ideological cleansing are suboptimal solutions. Both fail to tap into the hidden or latent creativity within people. Both simply recreate an environment where leadership’s inability to manage this leadership gap sows the seeds of continual revolution and little evolution.

Today, leaders of knowledge workers need to actively manage the dialectic between values proposed by leaders and values desired by followers. Keeping these two value systems working together, albeit with some friction but plenty of dialog, is the art of effective leadership.

One way leaders can get new and necessary ideas adopted in organizations is through the passions of the employees. Rightplacing, which attempts to place each employee in the place of most promise by tailoring roles to people rather than force-fitting people in malformed roles, can help reduce the gap between values IT workers typically desire and what they see in play. Those wishing to use rightplacing will need to understand transformational leadership skills. The skills of intellectual inquiry, individualized consideration, motivation and inspiration (transformational leadership skills) are critical ones for conducting the rightplacing discussions. Leaders need these skills to proactively manage the discussions about the leadership gap. When followers (and leaders) are rightplaced, they can more readily accept, if not direct, the changes that they need to embrace to reduce the leadership gap.

IT workers usually want challenging work matched to their intellectual and lifestyle interests. They want to actively participate in debating and shaping the value systems professed and put into action. They want to engage in the often spirited intellectual debate between IT configuration (tool selection, implementation and use) and business strategy. They don’t need to be always right. They simply need to be productively engaged.

The actual mission or details of the strategy of the organization is less important for most followers. While ideally we would like all employees to have a deep and undying attachment to the missions of our organizations, in practice, most employees and even executives cannot personally afford such attachment. When an organization loses an employee, for the organization the economic consequences are small. For the employee, the consequences are grave. For IT workers, this means keeping their skills up-to-date. Ambitious and passionate IT people typically do this.

Executives coping with complexity beyond their abilities or facing fast-moving harm to the organization will resort to positional power in order to secure ontological congruence (hire like-minded individuals and fire opponents). Frequently, executives and managers are unable or unwilling to make clear their professed values. They fail to sufficiently empower followers to actively monitor the leadership gap which prevents the surfacing of difficult feedback which can help close the gap. Executives may fear loss of control, self-esteem or personal power. Sometimes executives fear the debate can go on forever without end, thus stalling their plans.

Nothing could be further from the truth. An organization capable of frankly, openly and productively closing the leadership credibility gap can harvest the highest productivity and most passionate innovation from their teams. The courage to do this needn’t come from followers. Executive leaders need to summon the courage to face the leadership gaps they have unknowingly created and develop the skills to take advantage of the energy that simmers in this gap. Leaders need to direct it towards positive change versus destructive implosion.

IT leaders are frequently the least skilled in these areas of leadership, which I contend is contributing mightily to many of the systemic and repeated dysfunctions that the business and IT industries have prattled on about for decades. It’s time to change that.

IT leaders and business executives: get leadership development programs going for your followers. Start discussing the gap between what is professed and what is actually done, between what is currently in practice and what people really want. It’s time to close the leadership credibility gap. That gap has been costing us money, talent and opportunity.


  2 Responses to “Closing the Toxic Leadership Gap”

  1. Hear, hear!

    I would like to suggest a companion post to Vince’s astute articulation above: the post entitled A Social Contract for Agile (http://tr.im/qyRO). It addresses a particularly toxic gap which flies in the teeth of numerous Agile initiatives.


  2. avatar

    Great article! Glad to have you as our leader!

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